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Madeleine Akrich
, 
Yannick Barthe
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Fabian Muniesa
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et al.

The ontological priority of mediation

Geoffrey C. Bowker

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“Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros, fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus.” (Hesiod, Theogony, 116)

1I walked into the Center for the Sociology of Innovation at the Paris School of Mines in 1984 as a fully working, self-contained, human subject. I walked out six years later as a mediated entity, constituted by and constitutive of networks of things of all kinds – human or non-human each being awarded equal status in the emergent semiotics of the Center. And the best thing in this, as Antoine Hennion said as I despaired of even wanting the change, is that it doesn’t even hurt. A key actor in helping me work through this transition was Michel Callon – his work especially on the St Brieuc Bay scallops but more generally. Through Michel, I came to understand the centrality of ontological issues. This essay marks the place where I (or rather this particularly constituted me) am with my ontological thinking.

2There was a cartoon in the New Yorker a while back that showed a chicken and an egg in bed together. The chicken is lying back smoking a cigarette looking well pleased, and the egg says grumpily: “ Well, I guess that answers that question ”. Which came first, order or chaos? In the Judeo-Christian tradition order takes precedence – as day follows night in Genesis, the God of order creates and classifies the world through a series of acts of binary division. Our secular cosmogony agrees – the universe rapidly wends its way from maximal order to entropic end. Order out of chaos or chaos out of order?

3Binary divides define us. Nature/society tells us that there is a realm of the social which is in some way outside of nature, and a nature which can be fully described without taking humans into account. Mind/matter tells us that there is a realm of thought (a particularly efficient Turing machine) which exists outside of the realm of matter – or more precisely which is indifferent to its material seat. I/Thou tells us that there is a me here and a you there, as if I and thou were self-contained. Posing these divides as ontologically prior tells us that the act of ordering itself is natural: it came first. Only once we posit these can we begin to think.

4The realm in which chaos came first is more fluid historically. In this realm there is a primordial soup made up of humans and non-humans, I’s and thou’s, nature and society. It is only through the particulars of an historically contingent act of mediation that society and nature – me and my shadow – fall out as entities in the world. As the particular set of mediations change, so do the resultant categories which drop out of them. As Latour argues, nature and society drop out as categories from the act of mediating between the two.

5The central arguments of this essay are that the Enlightenment is indeed an epoch and that the epoch is to be defined in terms of mediation. Although my trajectory has been the inverse of the many other authors (I look to the past in order to understand the present), we collectively have met along a tunnel being constructed between the eighteenth century and the twenty-first.

6There have traditionally been two ways of conceiving epochs – as advances in human thought (think Hegel, John Stuart Mill) which have material effect, or as changes in the political economy broadly conceived and mediated by tools (the relationship between us and nature) which in turn influence culture. For the latter, as Siskin adumbrates, think Bacon’s gunpowder, printing and compass or Marx’s technological determinism. Michel Foucault spans the two. His wonderful discussion of the difficulty with transhistorical categories such as ‘the state’ or ‘the individual’ reaches a similar conclusion to Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: categories are incommensurable between epochs (cf. Veyne, 1971). They are different because the constitution of selves and states varies with the tools through which we experience them – in our terms they fall out of the acts of mediation which subtend them.

7Let us trip for the nonce over the notion of epoch. It is an especially difficult notion, since the historicizing Enlightenment itself gave a new twist to the concept – superceding eternal returns (Eliade, 1969) and progressive degeneration – ages of gold, silver, bronze (Kurke, 1999). There are two difficulties with an epoch defining itself, both of which can be illustrated out of the history of media. First is that the people who get to tell the story are the true believers. Clanchy argues brilliantly that the humanists who laud the spread of the printed word as a necessary specific against ignorance and intolerance were themselves teachers and spreaders of the word: there is just as good an argument that the spread of writing – and as I will argue the growth of the database – were key to the development of totalitarian states (Clanchy, 1993). Secondly, they are often true believers with axes to grind. As Geary argues in Phantoms of Remembrance, the people who gave us the shift to writing in eleventh century France were pushing the agenda of favoring certain property claims over others. In the act of doing so, they artificially operated a break between before and after the written record which has since been reified by historians as an historical, ratherthenamediational,transformation(Geary,1994)–thepastwasdifferentrather than that those who were mediating the past had changed. In similar fashion, when Lavoisier wrote his textbook on chemistry, he deliberately obscured live traditions which had informed him (the alchemists of previous centuries) by creating a new language which rendered past writing unintelligible (Bensaude-Vincent, 1989). In true baroque fashion, every act of clarity is simultaneously an act of obscurity.

8Guillory (2010) gives us a good picture of the claims of the epoch-makers to the nature of the change they both experienced and caused: Condorcet’s claim that with print: “Men found themselves possessed of the means of communicating with people all over the world. A new sort of tribunal had come into existence”. Babbage, who gave us the difference and analytical engines, extends this vision in his fragmentary, outrageous Bridgewater treatise. He proclaimed that until the invention of printing: “the mass of mankind were in many respects almost the creatures of instinct” (Babbage, 1837: 59). Now, the great were encouraged to write, knowing that: “they may accelerate the approaching dawn of that day which shall pour a flood of light over the darkened intellects of their thankless countrymen”, seeking: “that higher homage, alike independent of space and time, which their memory shall for ever receive from the good and the gifted of all countries and all ages” (Babbage, 1837: 54). As in Landor’s Imaginary Conversations (or E.M. Forster’s imaginary reading room at the British Museum), the enlightened would be in constant productive dialogue: mediated by print. (Unfortunately, none of the above saw that the field of the enlightened would soon beget an impenetrable thicket – there are far too many of them for anyone to read, as the breakneck publication rate of the modern academy attests).

9What I like about Babbage is that he puts time as well as space on the table. He was writing in the full flower of a period which wrote about space and time being destroyed, annihilated by the steamship and the railroad as well as print. What stands between here and there, now and then had changed. Moral qualities drop out differently in this new equation. Trust is different if it is mediated through word of mouth, text or database entry. Clanchy describes the moves that were needed to give the first precedence over the second – a series of technical inventions such as the chirograph made it possible to say that the words of a contract were less likely to be forged then the words of a trusted witness to be suborned. Laplace, creating probability theory, laboured hard on the question of how many – and what kind of – witnesses it takes to make a miracle believable. Where for Laplace it was the technique of probabilities that could stand between a person and the world in the realm of effective belief, for Boyle (Shapin & Schaffer, 1989) it was the protected laboratory (outside of space and time) with its implements; and for governments the technology of statistics.

10Building on Manovich – as variously do Eliassen and Jacobsen explicitly and Blair and Stallybrass implicitly – we can say that this was the epoch of the database. Scientists (‘les voyageurs naturalistes’, Napoleon’s trip to Egypt) were collecting and collating information on an unprecedented, scale. The natural resources of the empire should be managed. As Serres argues in Le Contrat Naturel this was an epoch where we began as a Western civilisation to begin to think about the management of our planet – in the face of ever-increasing population and limited resources. At the same time, states were beginning to create qualitatively new quantitative measure of their citizenry. A chief tool was the science of statistics – data about the state. In Foucault’s turn of phrase, this was the epoch of governmentality.

11So how to define the epoch, and how to ground it in a form which enfolds both the material and the cultural? We need to play with temporality in order to do it. Though it’s highly convenient to name a moment of instauration of the Archive (Derrida, 1995), it is particularly misleading. Any new information infrastructure – for an interest in such is central to this volume – is a slow process. Braudel and the Annalists offer useful language here. For them, the rhythms of history can be grouped into the punctual (the vagaries of political change, the memoirs of St Simon), the material (variations in modes of production), and the environmental (climate change for example). Precise dates only really go with the first of these. Modes of production change over long periods – so that the ‘first’ member of the bourgeoisie can be traced with some assurance anywhere from the twelfth to the nineteenth century. Or again, how do we know when we have an environmental disaster in, say, Los Angeles? Is it when we first overpopulated the land, when asthma reaches a given mark, or when water begins to dry leading to future wars between the states? So to offer a beginning for the Enlightenment is precisely the wrong thing to do – to do so is to shift it out of its native temporality.

12Rather, as Siskin so eloquently sustains, infrastructures persist in long nows. The latter being a reference to the clock of the long now being built by Stuart Brand inter alia – that glorious clock which will chime every thousand years and complete a cycle every ten thousand years to the gentle susurration of Brian Eno’s airport music (Brand, 1999). It is a long now precisely because of the act of mediation which gives rise to categories and classes, words and things. The easiest way into this argument is an essay by Paul David (1990). The essay is a consideration of the so-called productivity paradox: you bring computers into the workplace and productivity goes down for about twenty years. I witnessed this personally in the 1970s when a company I worked for which had been an early adopter of computers decided to decomputerize – the gains were not worth it. He compares this to the development of electrical dynamos in factory production at the turn of the twentieth century, which displayed the same paradox. You bring in something new and better and you do the old things worse. And that is precisely the point for David – dynamos are second-rate steam generators, and computers are second-rate typewriters. Only when you can truly think the new technology can you begin to do things which were otherwise inconceivable. In so doing you often need to change the concept of ‘productivity’ – as we have done as the service economy has overtaken the manufacturing in the first world.

13When written record was preferred over memory – at the precise date for Clanchy (1979: 23) of 3 September 1189 – a lot already had to be in place. Not only the collection of manuscript material, but also its archiving. Not only the signed statement, but also the chirograph. Similarly, with the spread of the book it took a few hundred years to develop the armature of footnotes which facilitative conversation over time and space – earlier references were more akin to the orphan page numbers of Ezra Pound’s cantos. Today, we did not suddenly become different with the invention of email. We are different now – in significant ways. My memory is enhanced by this prosthesis. I can access any email I sent over the past 20 years; my fleeting thoughts are now part – should I ever choose to access them – of my consciousness in ways unimaginable in the past. I once wrote two papers with a colleague whom I had never met. I am distributed in space and time in ways I never could have been in the past. However, my early email was like letters – in the dawn of the era of SMS I fear mine will never fully make the transition. So Enlightenment doesn’t have a date. What kinds of things are these momentous, undatable events? They are precisely those which result from the generation of new mediations. It is a historiographical error to say that the categories (humanity, nature and so forth) come first and then the mediations come after.

14The more complex question is what occasions a new set of mediations. To consider this, I juxtapose three entities: Thomas Arnold, the post office and the ticker tape. Thomas Arnold – father of Mathew – was headmaster at Rugby – an elite school which trained the leaders of the British Empire. The children’s classic Tom Brown’s Schooldays describes the life of a boy growing up under a transforming institution. When Tom Brown went to school, there was a given social order in place (fags serving their sybaritic superiors, inordinate capital punishment) which dissolved over the period that Arnold served. In Thomas Hughes’ classic, Arnold engineers root and branch change at Rugby without anyone realising it was happening. The social engineer par excellence worked his magic through the accumulation of small changes all pointed in his chosen direction. Let us abandon at once this picture of heroic change – foresight through mediational change is awarded retrospectively, not earned contemporaneously. There is no visible hand which creates an epoch, nor is there intelligent design which molds our future. Next is the more interesting case of the post office. Richard John argues persuasively that it was through the infrastructure of the post office, and more particularly the cheap postal rate for newspapers, which permitted the creation of the American state – suddenly folks from California or Oregon could join in with events in Washington or New York in a single national dialogue (John, 1995). The case for Australia is as strong – when sailboats took six months to venture to Australia, the Governor had a lot of leeway in his decisions, with the steamboat this went significantly down and with telegraphy the center could hold the reins of power (Blainey, 1966). This pushes us closer to the act of mediation whereby the state itself is constituted by the fabric of its information and communications infrastructure – new infrastructure means a new state, new people, new relations. John, though, rests at the institutional level. Finally consider the ticker tape. In a brilliant paper, Alex Preda argues that the invention of the stock ticker – which permitted the rapid distribution of stock market figures from Wall Street to investor via investment houses – forged a new temporality and spatiality for the profession of broker (Preda, 2006). For Preda, the technology itself provides affordances for a new kind of sociality subtended by a new temporality and spatiality: the remorseless ticking of the ticker engaged with previous practices and transformed them. Much as Arnold did, but blindly.

15How blind, then, is the change that comes from the primordial soup before which there is no mediation? This is of course the wrong question – mediations beget mediations, and if the act of mediation is indeed ontologically prior then the real question is that of the nature of the transformations that occur. This leads to the heart of the historiographical problem.

16The way into this for me is through a consideration of historical voice. The two great historiographical traditions can be cast as Herodotus opposed to Thucydides. The former gave us a great and for many modern readers a confusing history in which multiple stories were told from various voices, without the historian choosing a single description of the truth. Thucydides on the other hand gave us the single-voiced authoritative account. If we turn to the Baroque philosophers who preceded the Enlightenment – Montaigne or La Mothe Le Vayer – we get a multiplicity of voices. For Montaigne it is a string of juxtaposed, contradictory anecdotes which nonetheless tell a story. If there is one thing about Enlightenment historiography, whose baleful influence we still experience, it is that there is a one true right and only history – of the human mind or of the forces of production. It produced a new landscape of mediation in which the categories which fell out as outside of space and time were the universal truths of science and history. Latour and Woolgar wrote about the ‘deletion of modalities’ in scientific texts – as facts become more and more true, they are assigned fewer and fewer dates and times and conditions of experiments – they become established truths for all time (Latour & Woolgar, 1979). By parallel, Enlightenment historiography can be described as a continuous process of the deletion of mediation. The categories which fall out from the act of mediation have never been mediated. This is not a necessary feature of the work of mediation: it is an historical fact about a particular epoch in that history. The act of creating an archive is, within our current configuration, automatically an act of exclusion from the archive (Derrida, 1995) in the process of creating unmediated truth.

17The key figure which provides the nature of the relationship is that of the trader – as Hénaff (2002) discusses so beautifully. The trader is the stranger within the state – the person who by their very otherness within defines what is inside and outside of polis. In The Great Wall of China, from History to Myth, Arthur Waldron explores the myth of the wall as a barrier which keeps the barbarian hoards ravaging an unprotected countryside (Waldron, 1989). First, he notes, the barrier itself acted also as an entranceway. Several times central powers lost wars to the nomads beyond, who then became the central powers, who then… etc. At any given temporal scale, movements of lesser or greater magnitude can be seen. Secondly, the wall was never a continuous stretch of patrollable boundary – it was shored up wherever the current threat was and elsewhere fell into desuetude. The apprehension of a single wall stretched across the landscape has always been a political statement in the present rather than an historical representation. Thirdly, the site of exclusion – the wall itself – was a rich and stable trading zone between the nomad barbarians beyond and the civilized within. It was a site of interpenetration of people, artifacts, food, disease. So the barrier between, and the concomitant set of trading relationships, defined a stable historical relationship between nomads and the civilised which continued to reproduce itself whatever the historical vagaries of the collection of folks each side of the wall. With new information and communications infrastructures, we get new forms of mediation between people, new forms of insides and outsides. What is great about these infrastructures is that they are precisely that out of which truth emerges (encyclopedic knowledge of the world, statistics about our citizenry) and that which best expresses our current set of mediations.

18The Enlightenment is alive for us today precisely because it gave us a set of tools for mediating between people and between humans and nature. As empires expanded, more and more voices were brought into play – and the new tools gave ways of understanding and describing those voices, transforming them in the process. One example of this is classification. The era of binary classification which Linnaeus ushered in (as he showed the door to heteronomous cabinets of curiosity) spread along with information technologies throughout the nineteenth century: so that we came to see species and knowledge organization in tree form. The tree of life and the tree of knowledge. Patrick Tort writes wonderfully about the proliferation of genetic, binary classification across multiple sectors of science and bureaucracy (Tort, 1989). He writes traces the filiation of the systems – how genetic classification moved from biology to linguistics to mineralogy. He does not unfortunately ask the question of what made that filiation possible: the common new mode of organizing knowledge out of which new transhistorical entities were created. If we turn our attention to the deleted mediations, we can see the inevitability of the unity of the myriad faces of the Enlightenment without having recourse to an epistemology of Truth. What we see is a historically contingent new way of ordering the world.

19The era of the past two hundred and fifty years in the West is very much the era of the database. What is interesting about the new forms which are emerging today – still in the very infancy of their long now – is the possibility of creating new forms of ordering, perhaps even forms which permit polyphony. With our new information infrastructure we should reach back to the Baroque before we are blinded by the light.

Bibliographie

References

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Bensaude-Vincent, B., (1989), “Une révolution scientifique: Lavoisier”, in M. Serres (ed.), Éléments d’histoire des sciences, Paris: Bordas, p. 363-387.

Blainey, G. (1966), The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia’s History, Melbourne: Sun Books.

Brand, S. (1999), The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, New York, NY: Basic Books.

Clanchy, M. T. (1993), From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, Oxford: Blackwell.

David, P. A. (1990), “The Dynamo and the Computer”, The American Economic Review, 80 (2), p. 355-361.

Derrida, J. (1995), Mal d’archive: une impression freudienne, Paris: Galilée.

Eliade, M. (1969), The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Geary, P. J. (1994), Phantoms of Remembrance: Memory and Oblivion at the End of the First Millennium, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Guillory, J. (2010), “Genesis of the Media Concept”, Critical Inquiry, 36 (2), p. 321-362.

Hénaff, M. (2002), Le Prix de la vérité. Paris: Seuil.

John, R. R. (1995), Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kurke, L. (1999), Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold: The Politics of Meaning in Archaic Greece, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Latour, B. & S. Woolgar (1979), Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Preda, A. (2006), “Socio-Technical Agency in Financial Markets: The Case of the Stock Ticker”, Social Studies of Science, 36 (5): p. 753-782.

Shapin, S. & S. Schaffer (1989), Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tort, P. (1989), La Raison classificatoire: les complexes discursifs. Paris: Aubier.

Veyne, P. (1971), Comment on écrit l’histoire, Paris: Seuil.

Waldron, A. (1989), The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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